I'M LISTENING TO CUBANA BE/CUBANA BOP right now, Dizzy Gillespie's terrific 1947 fusion of traditional jazz and Latin rhythms. Intricate drumming and chanting from Africa via Cuba surround this musical alloy. The mix of American jazz with muscular, otherworldly sounds gave us something altogether fresh, simultaneously rough and sophisticated, captivating and unique--much as foreigners have seen Cuba in the intervening decades.
When the United States government broadened the definition of who can legally travel to Cuba in the late 1990s, an overflow of applications came gushing in. While the number of American tourists ignoring U.S. strictures on travel to the island continued to increase, a whole new breed of "study groups" started to appear.
My favorite was a flock of undergraduate English students from an upper Midwest frostbelt college who came to the sunny Caribbean in the dead of winter. They were the usual bunch--unfailingly polite, hair predominantly adolescent orange, and they spoke almost no Spanish. They were in Cuba, they averred, to learn about Hemingway in Havana. And this is how these American college students studied Hemingway in Havana: Every morning after finishing breakfast at their hotel's buffet, they returned to their rooms and changed into their swim suits, picked up a towel and a Hemingway paperback or two, descended to the pool, and lay down in a lounge chair to study Hemingway in Havana.
With all due respect to those students, there are better ways to learn about Cuba, even to study a foreign writer's life there a half-century ago. Just before dawn one morning a few years ago along the Malecón, Havana's expansive seaside boulevard, I met Humberto, a 34-year-old fisherman sitting on the seawall. He snapped his line out from a reel his late father had left him; nice wrist action. When I mentioned Hemingway in passing, he abruptly stood up and, unprompted, recited the opening lines of The Old Man and the Sea as if it were the Lord's Prayer. "I practically idolized Hemingway for how he identified with Cuban fishermen," Humberto said when he sat down again. "I was raised with a healthy admiration for him."
It's surprisingly easy to sidestep the well-marked tourist trail, to get under Cuba's skin. Spend a peso to ride a city bus. Pass an afternoon walking the streets of La Lisa or La Víbora, two neighborhoods that seldom see foreigners. Late at night drop in at the Cabaret Las Vegas, a decidedly second-rate but wonderful nightclub, and watch musicians, dancers, rappers, magicians, comics and crooners take the stage in rapid succession in an all-night variety show.
Most recently, the Las Vegas has appeared in Pedro Juan Gutiérrez's fiction, Dirty Havana Trilogy, but if you stay long enough you may feel like a character in Three Trapped Tigers, Guillermo Cabrera Infante's masterly and bawdy 1960s novel set in Havana's decadent pre-Castro years. The book's narrator, who wears many hats but sometimes little else, hangs out at the Las Vegas, where a wide variety of fleshy entertainers whisper bad puns in his ear.
Listen closely to what people on the street call norteamericanos. If it sounds like "yuma," you've got good ears. In Cuban street slang, yuma means a foreigner, more specifically, someone from a non-Spanish speaking European or North American country, and most particularly, from the United States. When someone asks my brother-in-law where his sister went, he might say, "Se fue pa' la yuma." She went to the United States. Or an American tourist strolling down Havana's Prado might hear, "¡Oye, yuma! ¡Ven acá!" Hey 'merican, com'ere! Yuma is a word unknown in Mexico or any other Spanish-speaking country that I know of.
Cubans have always liked our Westerns going back deep into the Batista years, including the Glenn Ford classic, 3:10 to Yuma. The movie, popular in theaters and on Cuban television, was quintessentially American. Based on a 1953 Elmore Leonard short story, it portrayed the nuance of cowboy honor and obligation. In the quirky way that one language absorbs the sounds and images of another, Cuba, which has embraced so many American totems, has taken Yuma if not to its heart, at least to its tongue. The Cuban street-slang yuma derives directly from the film 3:10 to Yuma.
Late one Havana afternoon, hot on the yuma trail, I visited Fernando Carr, a word maven whose language column in the weekly Bohemia keeps Cubans on the linguistic straight and narrow. It would be tempting to call Carr the Cuban William Safire, but looking north from Havana, I prefer to think of Safire as the American Fernando Carr. He lives in an apartment house on Salvador Allende Avenue, a street everyone calls by its prior moniker, Carlos III, and when I stepped off the elevator on his floor I gave thanks that no power blackout had taken place during the previous 45 seconds.
I brought along a bottle of rum--de rigueur for a foreigner visiting a Cuban for the first time--and with some ice cubes Carr retrieved from a neighbor's refrigerator, we climbed a ladder to his building's rooftop. There we sipped Havana Club as my host pointed out landmarks on the Havana skyline: nearby, the old American-owned telephone company; farther away the cluster of buildings at the Plaza de la Revolución where Pope John Paul II--himself a yuma--celebrated mass in 1998. I pointed waaay off to the north and a little west, and said, "La yuma, ¿verdad?" The United States, right? Carr nodded, agreeing that indeed the word likely came from 3:10 to Yuma. Moreover, he thought it was reinforced by the similarity between the first syllables of Yew-ma and Yew-nited States. Next time I see Carr I'll present him with Cubana Be/Cubana Bop, eight syllables that ought to keep the linguist busy for a while.
MOST OF ALL, GET OUTSIDE Havana. The people move slower and the air feels more Caribbean. The dollarization of Cuban culture does not yet dominate the countryside, but foreigners have wandered down just about every paved road, slept in farmers' haystacks, and received emergency medical treatment in the most unpopulated regions of the country.
One day near sunset years ago I was trying to find a town near the south coast that I'd heard had available lodging. I carefully followed the back-country roads on a detailed map I carried with me until I arrived at a village at the end of the blacktop. I pulled up to the plaza where an elderly gent wearing a Spanish beret sat by himself. "I thought this road continued through town to the highway," I said, holding up my map.
With his cane he pointed back down the road I'd just come to town on. "You must have that German map," he said with a chuckle. "Every few days someone comes here looking for a road that doesn't exist, and every one of you has that German map." I looked at the fine print in the corner, and indeed the map was produced in Germany.
We lost travelers were the fellow's only source of entertainment, and he invited me to sit a spell and chat. He was known as El Blanco--Whitey--he said, but there were fewer and fewer villagers left to call him that. The town had no industry and farm labor opportunities were shrinking. Many of his neighbors had gone to Havana to try their luck. Officials in Havana, alarmed that their overcrowded city was growing yet further, began checking ID cards and sending easterners back home.
It became the buzz of the street, just below the surface, but Los Van Van, the best dance band north of the South Pole, gave the anguish high profile with their song, "La Habana no aguanta más," Havana just can't take any more. Another of their uptempo songs popular in Havana's overrun barrios tells of the magical carpenters who manage to create yet more space out of already cramped living quarters. "Artesanos del espacio," it's called, Artisans of Space. Los Van Van give sassy voice to those who have the least.
To many travelers, Whitey in the countryside and Los Van Van's audience in the big city have a certain incorruptible integrity. It stems not from what they have but from what they don't: McDonald's, and the worldwide consumerism it symbolizes. With the foreboding that such businesses may well come ashore in the early post-Castro era, and ignoring that many Cubans would welcome such flamboyant and homogenized offerings, most travelers marvel at the opportunity to visit a land in its pre-golden arches era. The U.S. embargo, nasty and reprehensible as it is, has helped isolate Cuban culture from the commercial excesses of our own. After the embargo melts, well, we can all meet to discuss this further at Six Flags Over Cuba.